Fabiola Santiago

Fabiola Santiago: How did feeding the hungry become a crime?

Some people fight wars. Some people fight hunger. Some people fight City Hall.

Arnold Abbott, a World War II veteran, has done all three with passion.

In a country where compassion was once a source of strength but is now regarded as political weakness, this man is pure sunshine for the soul.

At 90, Abbott has defied a Fort Lauderdale ban on feeding the homeless in public spaces — and after being twice cited by police in a week and escorted off city parks, he faces two court summons, possible $500 fines and 60 days’ jail time.

His courage and commitment, in turn, have cast a needed spotlight on a city intent on criminalizing the inability to keep a roof over one’s head.

Abbott, a retired jewelry manufacturer, widower and longtime Fort Lauderdale activist, understands that sometimes people find themselves damaged and displaced — and, unlike the rest of us who walk by and ignore the homeless, he cares.

He has volunteered and run since 1991 a church kitchen that feeds the homeless. His motto: “I am my brother’s keeper. Love thy neighbor, love thyself.”

But the City of Fort Lauderdale doesn’t love him or his efforts, which they say keep the homeless from reaching out for help to find permanent solutions to their problems.

On Sunday, and again on Wednesday, a group of police officers — enforcing a set of anti-homeless ordinances passed recently by the city, including the feeding ban that went into effect a week ago — escorted Abbott off city parks downtown and at the beach while he was serving meals.

“One of the police officers said, ‘Drop that plate right now,’ as if I were carrying a weapon,” Abbott told WPLG-Channel 10, in a quote that has traveled around the world.

Instead of adding to his do-gooder resume a criminal record, this misguided city should award Abbott a medal of service, a ribbon of honor.

Shouldn’t we be celebrating a man like Abbott, who cares enough to spend his precious time on this earth looking after the needs of others? Shouldn’t we applaud his desire to connect through a meal and a kind word with people who are too often unreachable?

Not only is Abbott a true hero on several fronts, but he has brought, with his charm and panache, more international attention to Fort Lauderdale than the Chamber of Commerce could ever hope to see from ads for sun and fun available to those who can afford a waterfront hotel.

The city and its tough-talking mayor, Jack Seiler, earned a slam from Stephen Colbert, who delivered these priceless lines: “Oh, food is much worse than weapons in Florida. If George Zimmerman had fed a guy in a hoodie, he’d be in jail.”

Across the pond, the UK’s Guardian ran a piece on the arrests of Abbott and two pastors from Broward churches — and the growing trend in American cities to criminalize, as The Atlantic characterized it, “the hands that feed the homeless.” In the past few years thirty-some cities have enacted or are in the process of passing similar anti-homeless legislation.

People magazine chimed in on the story too, featuring Abbot as one of the “heroes among us.”

He’s certainly my kind of hero.

Only in times like these could feeding a hungry man become a crime.

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